heat (part 2)
April 17, 2008

So, it's hot. Really hot. So hot that I fainted the first night—which apparently happens all the time. The chef didn't miss a beat. I, on the other hand, sat on the bathroom floor with my head between my legs nauseously panicking about what a big mistake this all clearly was until it occurred to me to drink some water. Problem solved; back on my feet.

But there's a low-grade fever that kind of sticks in the brain, which is perhaps true of entering any new world with a vocabulary and mathematics entirely its own. I'm on the subway muttering "two to three egg whites per liter of liquid to clarify consommé"; "20 percent mirepoix to bones"; "jardinière equals 4 to 5 by .5 centimeters; the heel of my knife equals 4.5 centimeters"; "sauce suprême is a derivative of velouté; mornay is a derivative of béchamel; bordelaise is a derivative of either espagnole, demi-glace or fond de veau lié"—and wondering if I can ever have a layman's conversation about food again.

Some of this is worth imparting. Knowing how to ciceler an onion could be life-changing—or at least save unnecessary onion-tears: Peel an onion. Cut off the root and stem ends. Cut in half through the root end. With that flat surface on the cutting board, cut thin slices toward the root end, beginning at the top. When you reach the cutting board, begin slices perpendicular to the root end, but not cutting through the root end, so that the onion still stays together (you might have to hold it together a bit). Finally, make slices parallel to the root end. Toss the root end. You have an even dice; you haven't lost all that onion water that's essential for cooking; and you're not crying (unless you've sliced a bit of thumbnail—the kink I'm still working out).

The chef-professor doles out feedback from good-humored criticism ("Did you cut this parchment paper with your teeth?") to faintly damning ("That vin blanc…could be better") to praise maddeningly just out of reach ("This pea soup has good consistency, nice presentation…needs a hair more salt") to blissful ("This is simple and beautiful on the plate; exactly the right ratio of vegetables; excellent color; mushrooms seasoned very nicely: Your vegetables à la grecque are perfect").

And it's the pressure of that moment of presentation—no matter how much you read or know, it's what you put on the plate on any given night that counts, both in school and in real-world cooking—that gives shape to that refrain of foreign words and metric system. By the time you've made a dozen stocks and sauces, the difference between ciceler and èmincer isn't so much known as etched into the bones of your fingers. The surprise, in the end, is how trainable I still am.

Meanwhile: émonder, concasser, tronçonner, parer, tranche, chiffonade, hacher, à l'anglaise, à l'étuvée, vanner, dégorger, monter au beurre, tamponner, machonner….

Test tomorrow.